BEIJING (Reuters) - Mo Yan, who has won the Nobel literature prize, was forced to drop out of primary school and herd cattle during China’s Cultural Revolution and was sometimes so destitute he ate tree bark and weeds to survive.
But Mo, 57, credits this early suffering for inspiring his works which tackle corruption, decadence in Chinese society, China’s family planning policy and rural life.
“Loneliness and hunger were my fortunes of creation”, the author of the novel Red Sorghum said once.
The decision to award Mo the prestigious prize will be greeted with elation and consternation in China - he is the first Chinese national to win the literature prize.
The author, whose pen name Mo Yan means “don’t speak”, is regarded by critics as being too close to the Communist Party, although some of his books were banned. His book titles include “Big Breasts and Wide Hips” and “The Republic of Wine”.
Influenced by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, D.H. Lawrence and Ernest Hemingway, Mo uses fantasy and satire in many of his books, which have been labelled by state media as “provocative and vulgar”.
Red Sorghum portrays the hardships endured by farmers in the early years of communist rule and was made into a film by Oscar-nominated director Zhang Yimou.
The threat of a book being banned in the domestic market means Chinese authors have to step carefully if they want to make a living, even if the censorship system today is not as terrifying as it was during the hardline Maoist era.
“A writer should express criticism and indignation at the dark side of society and the ugliness of human nature, but we should not use one uniform expression,” Mo said in a speech at the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair, according to China Daily.
“Some may want to shout on the street, but we should tolerate those who hide in their rooms and use literature to voice their opinions.”
A number of rights activists and other writers had said Mo was unworthy of the prize and denounced him for commemorating a speech by Chairman Mao Zedong.
Mo, together with other Chinese writers, copied out sections of Mao’s speech for a special book to mark the 70th anniversary of the speech. It had said writers who did not integrate their work with the Communist revolution would be punished.
“On the political front, he is singing the same tune with an undemocratic regime,” prominent rights lawyer Teng Biao said before the award. “I think for him to win the Nobel Prize for Literature is inappropriate.”
“As an influential writer, he (Mo) didn’t use his influence to speak up for intellectuals and political prisoners - instead he catered to the government’s interests by handwriting the speech.”
Teng said that Mo, a vice-chairman of the government-backed Chinese Writers’ Association, shied away from commenting on the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize award to Liu Xiaobo, who was sentenced in 2009 to an 11-year jail term for inciting subversion.
Mo, whose real name is Guan Moye, was born into a peasant family in Gaomi, a village in eastern Shandong province.
When the Cultural Revolution ended, he joined the People’s Liberation Army. He studied at the army’s institute of arts and literature and later at Beijing Normal University, where he received a master’s degree in literature and art.
“I think writers write for their consciences, they write for their own true audiences, for their souls,” Mo said in an interview with China Daily. “No person writes to win awards.”
An employee of the sales department of a publishing house that prints Mo’s works said Mo, who is in Shandong, is declining media interviews. Mo could not be reached as his mobile phone was turned off.
“He thinks it’s too noisy now, he wants to concentrate on his writing,” said the employee, who declined to give her name, adding that Mo has been working on his new book for three to four months.
“Mo Yan is a person who has very high expectations for himself.”
Gao Xingjian, who won the prize in 2000, was born in China but was a French national when he won the award. A spokesman for the Chinese Writers’ Association dismissed the prize as one used for “political purposes, and has therefore lost its authority”.
Gao’s novels and plays have been banned in his homeland since 1986.
Additional reporting by Beijing Newsroom and Hui Li; Editing by Ron Popeski and Robert Woodward